The stand-off between opposition protestors and government forces turned violent on Wednesday, November 7 as riot police and security forces cleared demonstrators from the square in front of Georgia's parliament in the capital of Tbilisi.
Some 1,000 security forces stormed several thousand protestors with water canons, tear gas and truncheons at around 1pm local time as the protestors attempted to gather outside parliament. Local media filmed protestors being punched and kicked to the ground, and the mood among the crowd turned to one of utter shock, reporters said.
The first violence occurred at around 8am local time as some 300 policemen wearing fluorescent yellow, hooded capes cleared about 100 demonstrators, including 47 hunger strikers, from outside the parliament, reported the newswire Reuters, citing an opposition leader.
"They beat us and detained two people, as far as I know," opposition leader Tina Khidasheli told Reuters. Opposition leader Giorgi Khaindrava was among those detained and, allegedly, beaten.
"We didn't use force on the crowd, we just cleaned the avenue of rubbish. Only some people who tried to resist were detained," Tbilisi patrol police chief Giorgi Gegechkori told reporters. Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava said the action had been carried out to restore traffic, prevent protestors from pitching tents in the city centre and to sanitize the area.
"The authorities will not allow the city and the country to be turned into tent camps. Special sanitary services are now disinfecting the area," Interfax reported Ugulava as saying. The mayor reportedly conceded that people were entitled to express their protest in a peacefully way.
A turn for the worse
Demonstrations had protested peacefully since November 2, when some 70,000 people gathered in front of parliament calling for early parliamentary elections in spring 2008 and for President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation. The president has not been seen in public since the demonstrations began, however, in a taped interview aired on local TV stations on November 4, Saakashvili rejected the opposition's demands. Saakashvili maintains that the latest polls show 40% support for his government and the closest opposition party has only 10. Still, Saakashvili refuses to allow a snap national election to solve the crisis, even though protestors have pledged to continue demonstrating until he resigns and the authorities agree to hold early elections.
In an interview November 3 with Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, Saakashvili acknowledged there are problems related to unpopular reforms that have been implemented, but stressed that, "We must await results." The Georgian economy is looking as though its overheating with expected GDP growth this year at 15%, with inflation at over 11%. Next year, Saakashvili predicts growth of 10% with inflation again over 10%.
Within an hour of the police action to clear the area in front of parliament, some 500 protestors had returned and by the time the police moved to re-disperse the crowd with water canons and tear gas, they faced several thousand protestors. Riot police, masked and in full protective gear, and security forces, wearing balaclavas and dressed all in black, joined the policemen and, in what appeared to be a shockingly brutal crackdown, cleared protestor out of the city centre.
TV crews were caught up in the violence and security forces reportedly confiscated film. A reporter from the opposition TV station Imedi was reportedly beaten up by security forces.
Some 250 people were admitted to hospital and most of the complaints were related to the use of tear gas, Georgian Health Minister David Tkeshelashvili told a briefing later in the day, reported newswires.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said that the use of tear gas and water canons was justified. "All permissible measures, including teargas, were used for dispersing the demonstration. Rustaveli Avenue must be open, and this was done," Nogaideli was reported as saying.
Georgian parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze called for the opposition to stop its demonstrations and resume a constructive dialogue with the government.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly described the events in Georgia as a domestic affair, but said that Moscow is worried about Tbilisi's attempts to undermine a peaceful settlement.
Following the crackdown, protestors dispersed, though by late afternoon some 10,000 had reportedly gathered in Rike Square in the old part of Tbilisi. According to newswires, the number of protesters was growing and opposition leaders continued to call for the peaceful resignation of Saakashvili.
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